Sunday, July 31, 2011
Water Behind Us: Chapter 2 (Autumn)
Sitting under a tree, a maple that I thought of as my own, I watched the down slope of a hill in Lincoln Park on the day before Halloween. A man was carrying a baby, and two young children, girls, ran in front of them, one of them in a tall black witch hat. The ground was coated with leaves, red and orange, and I could hear the sound of their feet from across the slope. As they walked down, the two girls ran ahead towards a pile of leaves and began throwing the leaves at one another. Still on the pathway, the parents stopped and watched them. I imagined that they were savoring the moment, taking a snapshot of youth. I was doing the same.
Every year, when I was in Chicago, I sat under that tree on the day before halloween. There was a picture of me there as an infant, dressed up as a tiny devil, in my mother's arms, asleep. My new ambivalence towards children made me aware of the small faces in the grocery store, station wagons and strollers. Their lives seemed so precarious, their parents so lackadaisical, and their essence so mysterious; they were to me the flash of a motorcyclist on a rainy night.
The world of children was one which I was forced to observe from a distance. My neighborhood, which had seemed to teem with children when I was small, now seemed to house those who were too old or too busy to have children around; others had been priced out of Kenilworth.
After several minutes, I lifted myself off the ground and brushed myself off. I looked up at the tree, which was a golden yellow with tinges of red. My car was parked under a similarly bedazzling oak, and I picked a few of the leaves off of the hood to save between the pages of a book.
Driving back to Kenilworth, I passed a school where the doors were propped open on the side nearest the street. The sign outside identified it as the "Inter-American School", but I had no idea what that meant. I pulled over across the street from the school and waited for someone to pass in or out, to see what sort of person would have business to take care of at an inter-american school.
I soon found out. A small boy walked out the open door, crying. His fists were to his eyes, and his head was bent, and I could hear his sobs. He was dressed as a pilgrim-- a big black hat hung lopsided on his head and he struggled along in big black shoes with white paper buckles. One of the buckles was knocked off his shoe as he slumped down against the brick wall. In a few minutes a woman came out-- the principal, it seemed. She was wearing a bright red sweater. She came through the open door, and looked both ways before she spotted the crumpled form against the wall. Going to him, she sat down on the hard cement beside him. I couldn't hear them, but I saw him nod, then wipe off his face. The principal reached over and reattached the paper buckle to his shoe, and the two of them walked back into the school, the principal slightly behind with her hands lightly touching his back.
The principal seemed to have a magic touch at her job; I wanted to rush in and ask her about it. I wanted out of the pace of the world I lived in, and remembered what a Lebanese man whom I had known had said before leaving Chicago to return to his village: "What is wrong with this place is so many people drinking coffee out of styrofoam cups in their cars."
* * *
The day before Thanksgiving always seemed like a distinct and precious holiday to me, the day of cross-continental homecomings. I even liked the jammed airports and trains; the expectant people scanning the crowd for their own kin.
I had done my share of travel on that Wednesday, and my memories were, with one exception, warm ones. From college, I had taken the train down to Washington, in the days before my Aunt returned to Chicago when the family gathered at her house in the woods by the Potomac. The train was so crowded that students were packed even onto the platforms between the swaying cars, and the aisles became home to small clumps of us, beer in hand. For the occasion, Amtrak resuscitated the oldest of its rolling stock, ancient pullman and coach cars with square windows and the still visible markings of the Penn Central or New York & New Haven lines. To sit on such a train returning to school was to see an overture of the eastern educational establishment; a Northbound train travelled successively through the homes of William & Mary, Randolph-Macon, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Penn, Princeton, Rutgers, Columbia, Yale, Brown, and finally, Harvard. At each stop, a new and distinct group would alight upon the already overburdened cars, their initial frustration apparent as they looked for seats or a clear space in which to sit. I had loved that about the East; the towns were crowded together, creating a feeling of shared intimacy of place after a few beers on a bright silver train.
The memory of those train rides were fresh and whole as I waited for the work day to end. In the morning, I filed papers in the state courthouse, and in the afternoon my single service was on a gentleman so embarrassed at the fact that he had become involved in litigation that he insisted on picking up the subpoena at the firm's offices when I called him on the phone. In the afternoon, many of the residents of the basement corridor took an early leave, and those of us who remained shared a brief camaraderie. In the cubicle next to mine, Rita the word processor was talking animatedly on the phone in Lithuanian. Her words tripped out excitedly and rythymically, and it became a sort of background music for me as I did some file work and rearranged the papers on my desk into piles corresponding to their relative importance. On top of the pile in the front was the slip from Tenerife Baker, with "see me" written twice on it, and underlined.
Rita finished her call and left, calling out to me as she pushed the door open with her back, her hands full of bakery boxes. At four, I stepped out the door myself, and walked alone across the lobby. As I touched the stone skin of the building and entered the chill air of Lasalle Street, I noticed a few tiny, frail wisps of snow trailing down from the sky between the behemoth buildings which formed the concrete canyon. I caught one on my tongue discreetly, and crunched the tiny crystal between my tongue and teeth as I crossed the street to the tiny delicatessen in the opposite building.
I had often thought of going to this deli, which was actually more of a soda fountain. It was made of wood and marble, and had an aura of faded grandeur, even when full of suited men at lunch. I had looked through the glass and seen them in there, and gone on to a place with fewer professionals jamming their briefcases into the nooks and crannies. On the day before Thanksgiving, I knew that the hordes would be gone and that I could see it at leisure.
I ordered an egg cream and drank it at the marble-topped counter. It was my first egg cream. I resisted the impulse of asking the counterman what exactly an egg cream consisted of. It came out of metal canister, like a milk shake, and had the tinny bite of cold and metal.
There was one other customer in the delicatessen, a young woman with striking dark hair. She wore a beautiful wool coat which was buttoned up against the weather. Browsing the shelves briefly, she chose a box of chocolates. Her hair might not have been so striking and her coat so beautiful if not for the snow which clung lightly to her, the first snow of the year. I watched her intently until she passed close to me at the end of the counter, at which point I turned away self-consciously. After she left, I paid for my food with a brief smile at the counterman, and crossed the street again to retrieve my car in the snow.
The roads were quiet, and in Kenilworth there were a few anxious residents who were already out with shovels and brooms to address the first few flakes of the season. Smoke rose from chimneys, and in certain driveways, visiting cars crowded the residents' vehicles onto the street.
Walking into the house, I was surprised to find my Father sitting at the breakfast table looking out over the yard, only a cup of coffee before him. It was the first time in my life that I could remember my Father returning from work before five, or sitting at the table by himself without some sort of reading material before him. It seemed that he shared my mood, a deep-seated contentedness that required no further stimulation.
When I think of my father now, that is how I think of him: Sitting at the breakfast table, relaxed, with a gentle smile as he looked out at the backyard and the snow beginning to come down. Its funny that I remember him that way, because it was not at all typical; after my Mother's death, he had been in constant motion.
I went to the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee. I dropped in two cubes of sugar, carried it to the table, and sat next to my dad. For a while we both just sat there, looking out at the snow, which now was forming a soft blanket over the grass and muffled the sounds of the town and city in the distance.
"Buddy," he said in even tones, "you don't drink coffee."
It was true. I had always refused coffee when it was offered, though I found the taste agreeable enough. It didn't seem worth the effort, for one thing. Buying, grinding, brewing, pouring-- the process consumed much of the lives of some people I knew.
I shrugged in response to his question. I wanted to share that moment with him, and the steaming cup seemed like a part of it. I took a sip of the coffee and savored the taste, the warmth of it. My father looked over at me, smiling.
"I like this job, Pop. At first, it was mostly grunt work, but now I'm starting to get some things where I can use a little imagination. The hard part is the paperwork."
My father nodded knowingly.
I dug for more. "Have you heard anything, you know, about how I'm doing?"
"Good things, Buddy. I hear good things," my father said, looking down towards his coffee. He seemed to want to say something, maybe something about my work or the snow or our family, but he remained silent. I waited, but his words came very slowly.
"Do you think I've been a good father?"
The question was incomprehensible and shocking. I couldn't answer, never having thought of how my father could have been different than he was. He had seemed immutable, permanent, and the issue of different behavior had never crossed my mind.
"I know you and your brother seem happy, and I know that I'm proud of the things you've done. But there has been a lot of loss in your lives, people you knew and people you didn't. Your mother, my brother Ennis, all of your grandparents, all gone. There's a lot of things they could have taught you."
"It's not like you killed them, Dad," I said stupidly.
He laughed. "No. It's just hard to be the only one." He looked far away, the way his Aunt would look when she talked about South Carolina. For the first time, I thought of him as lonely. He had always seemed so stoic and upbeat, when no one else would have been. Loneliness was simply not a feeling I ever thought that he had, but in the early winter light I could see it.
Seeing that in his eyes triggered a vestigial pain of my own. "I don't know about the rest of them, but I know that I miss Mom sometimes," I said. "I go sit in her studio, and it seems like she should come back. I'm still waiting after awhile with my eyes closed, just sort of smelling and feeling that room. That's when I feel it."
What I didn't share was the most painful memory of my Mother. I visited her for the last time in her room two nights before she died. She seemed very thin. I was a small child, and I tried to crawl up on her bed to look at her face, which was turned away because she was asleep. I slipped off, and knocked a vase of flowers off of the bedstand. The vase shattered on the ground with a loud repercussion, and my Mother awoke. With her tired eyes she looked at the pieces of the vase on the ground and simply said, "Oh. Oh no." Then she turned away and I was taken out of the room for the last time. She was gone. When I thought of it, even that day with my father, I felt like scratching at my own face until I felt blood on my hands.
The anger I felt towards myself had never directed itself towards my father. I didn't have the same problems with him that many of my friends had with their own fathers. Red Trigg never yelled at his sons, never chastised us publicly, never beat us, never scorned us or humiliated us, or divorced our mother, or died. Red Trigg fathered the same way that he lawyered; with an air of quiet strength that brooked no fools. Yet I felt a lack, a certain starvation for an emotional reaction. I had seen too much muted pride and sadness, and longed for an emotional outburst. As a child, one of my fantasies was to be part of an Italian family in a small house which always faintly smelled of spaghetti. The father, Gino, would make wine in the basement and serve it to the whole family with meals, at which everyone would talk at once. When Gino was angry he screamed, but when his children had pleased him he would sweep them up into his arms and kiss their cheeks.
Finally standing, my father went into the kitchen for more coffee. His voice came to the breakfast room: "I don't know if your brother is coming today or tomorrow. It depends on his flight and work." Returning to the round table, he continued, "Your brother seems a little full of himself these days."
"He's a big New York lawyer now. My brother, the rising star."
"New York is a strange place, Buddy. New York changes people."
"I know. Michael's still a good guy. We talk about things." I wondered whether to break my father's illusion that Michael and I were close.
I wanted my father to pry; wanted my father to want to know what it was that had gone wrong. I didn't raise it, though; he had taught me too well.
"Who's coming this year, Pop?"
"Eight..., no, nine," Red said, counting on his fingers against the table. "Me, you, Michael, your Aunt and Uncle and Bobby and Seve, and your Aunt Sam. I think a few homeless attorneys, too. They'll call tonight."
Thus we left behind that moment where I glimpsed his loneliness. We talked about the Holiday. I had my usual duties. First, it fell to me to make a turkey, a fifteen-pound bird, and some stuffing. The other accoutrements were to be provided by the guests. The foursome from Madison were to bring salads, a term they used loosely to include things like trail mix and pudding, and Aunt Sam would arrive with her predictable execrable sweet potato pie. The pie had become the stuff of legends, as Aunt Sam stuck to tradition and continued to provide the sulfurous desert, though we ate it purely out of politeness, and in only the smallest possible pieces. No one knew how she made the pie, but it always bore the faint smell of a smoke bomb, and was encased in a hardened shell.
The homeless attorneys had also become something of a Trigg family tradition. First year associates often had come from other parts of the country to work at Toth, Taylor & Moore, and were too overburdened with work to make it back for Thanksgiving. Red Trigg had begun several years before to invite these unfortunates to our dinner. Invariably, the young attorneys were too formal in both accepting and attending the dinner, but loosened up once they became comfortable with the atmosphere of our home. At least one young attorney had attended four years in a row, and I suspected that she found being an adopted orphan preferable to the atmosphere at her own home.
The large number of guests was the source of my second, and more sacred, ritual, the finding, erection and placement of the "kid's table." It was an old card table in the back of the front hall closet, hauled out once a year for the big meal. It was not a pretty table, but reaching back into the closet through the coats and the ski suits and the blankets brought an intense and inchoate rush of nostalgia.
As my father washed the two coffee cups, I performed my duty, the smell of old wool rushing up to meet me. With effort, I took the old table out of the closet, and carried it into the dining room. I caught a finger in the locking mechanism of one of the legs, and was sucking on the injured digit as I walked into the kitchen where my father was taking dishes out of the dishwasher.
Returning again to what I viewed as a happy topic, I leaned back against the counter and said, "I really do like this job. Today I was down in the basement after everyone else had left, and I really sort of felt like there was a peace to it. I mean, I know I'm not articulating this very well, but I just felt like it was the right place to be."
My father looked vaguely uncomfortable. "Actually, it's funny. I was talking to Tenerife Baker, and she told me about some work she wanted you to do."
I nodded. "She mentioned it awhile ago; something about a prison case. I haven't heard back from her."
"What do you think of her, Buddy?"
"She's confident, and that seems to be about three-quarters of the battle to be a good lawyer right there, and she's smart." I paused apprehensively. "Why, did she goof up or something?"
"No, no, not at all. We think she's great. The case is a good one for her, but if she asks you again, I'd rather you not get involved in it. I took the case as sort of a political favor, and one Trigg being involved is enough."
"Pop, you took a prison case as a political favor? Makes me wonder who out there you owe debts to!"
We laughed gently, and the topic dropped. I disliked being warned off, but decided to wait for another moment to bring the problem up, and question my father further about the case. I didn't want to break the contentedness that I saw in him.
We waited until midnight for Michael. He finally called from work to say that he would be there first thing in the morning. I knew that my brother's life reminded my father of his own years as a young attorney, of the years he lost with the wife that he thought would always be there.
With only the slightest of smiles he said good-night, touched my head with his fingertips as he passed, and went up the steps. He turned and looked at me halfway up the stairs. He looked old, suddenly. "Well, good-night Buddy," he said again, and continued up the stairs.
After he turned the corner, I stood wearily from my own chair, and walked to the back doors. Unlocking one, I stepped out onto the steps over the lawn. His lawn. Her lawn, still. The snow was coming down through the light coming from the bay window, fat apple-cider flakes. I caught one on my tongue, and felt the cold air on my face as Thanksgiving Day arrived silently.
* * *
The morning dawned sharp and cold and white. At exactly 8:00 the clock radio clicked on, and at precisely that moment a man's voice leapt from it, declaring "It's Bears weather!"
The room was cold, and when I emerged from bed I ran from the room to the shower a few feet away, and turned on the warm spray. Downstairs, I heard the coffee brewing in the old Mr. Coffee. Dad never replaced the stained, barely-functioning machine for a newer model, confirming a phenomenon I had noticed: My friends with the least money, living in a tiny apartment, invariably possessed a sleek matte-black German coffeemaker, while the affluent suburbanites I grew up around were strangely devoted to their creaking antique machines.
Still wet from the shower and wearing hastily thrown-on sweats, I trotted downstairs and poured myself some of the fresh coffee.
My father feigned amazement. "Two cups in two days? You may never sleep again!" He shook his head and retreated into the breakfast room as I grunted and hauled the turkey out of the refrigerator and pondered my basting technique.
My Mother having departed without leaving instructions on how to baste a turkey, I had in the past resorted to some novel and sometimes horrifying devices before my discovery of the basting brush. Had the guests known, they would have been thankful that the years of a turkey basted with a bare finger, paper towel, or piece of mozzarella cheese were over. Actually, the year I had used cheese was an unusual success; no one identified the faint, odd but pleasant taste. I have since been tempted to try that one again.
Slowly, as the afternoon brought the light into the kitchen, the cast assembled. First to arrive, shortly after one, was Aunt Sam, the sister of David Baxten Trigg, my deceased grandfather. They had grown up on a South Carolina plantation, and Samantha Trigg had never married and had never abandoned the political and social ideals of South Carolina. She continued to speak with a perceptible Southern accent, and dressed the part of Southern matron on a brief visit to the alien Northern city, generally wearing two or three layers of clothing more than most Chicagoans would consider adequate. Thanksgiving was no exception, as she arrived at the front door wearing not only a wool jacket, but a long fur coat.
"Buddy!" the maiden Aunt exclaimed, giving me a predictable but unappreciated kiss on the cheek. "Help me with my things."
Aunt Sam's "things" were a small pastry shop box, which she had placed in the middle of the trunk of the Oldsmobile like a large suitcase. "I didn't have time to make my pie this year, so I got something at Mr. Pastry," she explained, "I feel like such a laze-about!" With that, she bustled past me to her nephew, who stood at the top of the front hall stairs awaiting her.
"Samuel!" It is so hard to get used to you being grown up!" Unlike me, my Father knew how to handle his Aunt, and hustled her off to the den, where the television was playing the traditional Detroit-Chicago Thanksgiving Day football game. Sam had a peculiar passion for the Bears, an affiliation which mystified only those who were unable to pierce her artifice of Southern gentility.
Once she was settled in, my father and I met in the kitchen. "Pastry!" he, opening the box to see four neat little eclairs lined up, nestled in white paper.
"Ten people, four eclairs-- she must assume that our affection for all desserts is in proportion to the demand for her pie," I noted, closing the box.
My father laughed, then gently reproached me. "Your Aunt may be a little strange, but don't forget that she's responsible for the family coming North. If it wasn't for her, you might be driving a tractor in Frogmore, South Carolina."
I didn't need to be told, having heard the story many times of how Aunt Sam, enamored of the city, convinced her brother to leave the decaying farm in South Carolina and come to Chicago. Aunt Sam was successful in insurance. She sold fire insurance to whites on the North Side and funeral insurance to blacks on the South Side. Her secret was a combination of a shrewd business mind and a soft drawl that customers trusted. It didn't work on me-- I had never trusted her, or anyone with a southern accent. It always seemed as if they must be faking it.
Next to arrive was the Madison contingent. Aunt Ericka and Uncle Gordon arrived with their two sons, Bobby and Seve, each of whom were in their early twenties. In fact, if one was to judge the family solely in terms of behavior, each member could be taken to be in their early twenties. Aunt Ericka, my mother's little sister, taught at a nursery school, while Gordon owned a company which made wood stoves. The parents wore long hair and loose clothes, and had schooled their children at home. Predictably, their two sons had become Republican in appearance, politics, and dress, much to the irritation of the parents. Seve, the elder of the two cousins, was finishing his MBA at Dartmouth, while Bobby had that fall entered law school at the University of Virginia.
When I heard them pull up I went out to the driveway to help, and exchanged handshakes with my cousins, both of whom gave me a firm, businesslike handshake. Ericka and Gordon nodded genially. Once inside, Bobby and Seve joined Aunt Sam in front of the football game, while Ericka, Gordon and my father talked in the kitchen as I continued to prepare the meal. The secret to a good turkey, I had found, was to cook it for a very long time over low heat and pick bits off and eat them as it gets close to being ready. Also, remember to be sure that all the plastic wrapping comes off the bird before it goes into the oven (a lesson I learned early on).
The doorbell rang again, and I left the turkey to answer it, thinking it might be Michael. At the door were two young Chicago lawyers, a woman younger than me and a 30-ish man.
The man spoke nervously. "I'm David Sands. Mr. Trigg invited us for dinner." He was a thin, owlish guy, with a demeanor that seemed eager to please. His shoes looked freshly polished.
With David Sand was a woman, with shoulder-length blond hair and a sideways smile that seemed unrehearsed. She stuck out her hand, shook mine, and said, "I'm Lisa Diamond. You look like your Dad."
"I'll take that as a compliment," I said. There was an undefinable quality about her that drew me in, something that was both genuine and bold.
I escorted them into the living room and introduced them to the assembled group. Bobby's eyes hung on Lisa Diamond, while David Sand said a short, nervous piece about being very glad to have the chance to be there.
Watching them, I smelled the turkey, and hurried into the kitchen. It was ready to be carved, and I hauled it out of the oven with both hands, wonderful fragrant steam rising up off of the bird. I picked off bits of the skin with tender meat clinging underneath and popped them into my mouth.
After a few minutes, Bobby came into the kitchen interrupting my private feast.
"So, who's this Lisa Diamond, Buddy?"
I shrugged. "Works in the office I guess," I said, trying not to reflect my own interest. I was no good at this type of banter, though I was sure that my desire was more aroused than my cousin's. There was a time when I had sat around with friends like bears in a cave comparing women's assets, but that time had passed. "How's school?" I asked him.
"Pretty great," Bobby reported, "not really that different than college, only people seem more mature. I don't know-- we'll see when grades come out if it's the sort of place where you can study hard and play hard."
"UVA's got a good reputation."
"I'll get a job, I know that. So, what do you do now? I heard you quit the thing in DC."
I hated this part of a conversation with relatives, and resented the moment's intrusion into my meat-based reverie. My four years in Washington had been rocky, and had ended traumatically. "Right now, I'm just working at Dad's firm for a while."
"Sort of a paralegal?"
I was in no mood to explain. "Yeah, sort of."
"Hey, no problem with that. Nothing's better to get into law school that paralegal stuff. A lot of the people in my class did that. You going to apply this year?"
I had no intention of going to law school. "Maybe. I don't know."
Bobby shrugged. "Think about UVA. Good party school. Duke too."
As Bobby returned to the den, I cursed under my breath. There was something unfair about the way in which Bobby, with absolutely no adjustments in his lifestyle, would be able to step into a job, good money, and a house, while most of those with whom I had worked in the Peace Corps could not cope with their return to Western civilization, many taking several years to find so much as a steady job. As I had been trained by my father, I swallowed my resentfulness and pulled out the turkey. Underneath it all, however, lay the strong desire to destroy something, to do malice with explosives.
Few things attract a crowd like a hot, golden brown turkey. The first cut of the carving knife into the white breast drew the others into the kitchen, before my father shepherded them into the dining room and arranged the food on a buffet. To enter such a room was a powerful instant, a sort of feast ritual that touched a primal chord.
Three places were set at the kids table, and were promptly snapped up by Gordon, Seve, and the silent and nervous David Sand. Red Trigg sat at the head of the large table, with Ericka and Bobby to his left, Lisa Diamond and I to his right, and Aunt Sam at the far end of the table. Bobby watched Lisa sit down next to him, the curve of her breast obvious under the white silk shirt. I looked down at my place setting after I in turn sat next to her.
As chairs were pulled in, a nervous moment approached. It was the tradition of the family to pray before dinner, but the art of the public prayer was a skill unmastered by any of us. Making the moment worse was the awful tradition of my father choosing someone to lead the prayer with no forewarning. In those moments before the patriarch picked the reluctant leader, I had at times said a silent prayer of my own.
"Ericka, would you like to say the prayer?"
I breathed out, pardoned and relieved.
Before Ericka could begin, Aunt Sam spoke. "Should we join hands?"
"We don't usually," my father responded.
"I just thought it would be nice."
Another awkward moment ensued in which the group slowly held hands around the two tables. I took Lisa Diamond's left hand in my right, and wondered if it was noticeably sweaty. Her hand was soft but firm, a sensual hand. I clenched my eyes and mouth shut and looked down. The others did likewise as Ericka began the prayer.
"Dear God, our Father and Mother... thank you for the last year, and for the good things that happened to us, and for the things that we learned things from... help us remember those who couldn't be here-- my parents, Samuel's parents, Ellie, Ennis... thank you for bringing us all together here so we can... be together... thank you for the world around us, for the ecology... for the trees that gives us back oxygen that we need, and for the whales and for the dolphins and the birds... thank you for all of the plants and animals, and everything else. Amen."
After the prayer, as always, Aunt Sam with quivering hand raised her wine glass reverently before her. I reached for my glass and held it in front of me over my plate. As the others raised theirs as well, the matron made her toast in an uncharacteristic low, quiet voice. "To Old Sedalia," she said, and the others nodded and drank.
Suddenly conscious that I had not yet released it, I slowly let go of Lisa Diamond's hand without looking at her. It was one of those moments where I realized I had unknowingly done something stupid or embarrassing, and laughed nervously and waved my hand. She seemed unperturbed. During the first part of the prayer, I had felt as if there was energy surging into me from her hand. It had been over six months since I had held hands with a woman, and perhaps because of this absence it seemed a tremendously intimate act. As Aunt Sam closed her toast and as I let go of Lisa's hand, I became aware of Michael's presence in the room.
As usual, he didn't need to say anything to draw the group's attention. Standing in the corner of the doorway to the dining room was Michael, wearing blue jeans and a green and blue sweater. "Sorry about the lateness thing," he explained as the others turned towards him. Michael had always had a certain magical quality about him, a quiet ability to appear unnoticed in a room and suddenly become the most noticeable thing there.
"Michael!" Aunt Sam exclaimed, sighting her favorite. A tablesetting was added to the children's table, and Michael settled into one of the small wooden chairs as he told the enraptured group how his plane had sat on the ground at LaGuardia for nearly three hours before being towed back to the gate as unworthy to fly. Aunt Sam was particularly impressed by Michael and his interesting Manhattan life, and pressed him for details on his apartment, his job travels, and his girlfriend. It was at these times that I felt most isolated and alienated from my brother, who not only was different from me, but seemed to inhabit a world of privilege that made me jealous; jealous of Michael's independence and freedom and the accessibility of his success, which all could see and admire. The fact that Michael's successes were so easy to explain made mine seem inchoate and latent.
Aunt Sam turned her attentions to me, as if to reinforce my sudden relative inadequacy. "Buddy, do you have a girl now? You're not seeing that Jewish girl now, are you? Your father told me that was over."
I felt hot-- physically warm, and angry, and the tension within me was hard to conceal. "No, Aunt Sam, no significant other in my life right now."
The Aunt did not relent. "No what? I asked about a girl, not some 'other'! What are you talking about? Is it that Jewish girl?"
Steaming, I tried to maintain my even tone. "No, Aunt Sam, I'm not seeing anyone right now."
"It's nothing against the Jews, after all they've been through, it's just that I don't think it would make you happy in the end. I know one boy who married a Jewish girl, and her mother..."
She was cut off abruptly by her nephew. "Sam, I don't think we really need to talk about this right now." My father froze her with an ice-blue stare that pounded home his point. Aunt Sam looked down at her plate and cut her turkey. There was absolute silence in the room. David Sand was sitting motionless, his mouth slightly open.
It was unusual for my father to cut off a conversation or reprimand anyone in public; in fact, I could not remember having seen it before, though I had often hoped that he would rise up to defend me. While the realization that my father had finally taken up a sword for me began to form, it was just as quickly dashed. Looking to my right, I saw that it was not me that my father sought to protect. Lisa Diamond looked down at her food, her lips pursed and her smile gone.
Michael, saving the moment, told about his recent trip to Los Angeles, and the bizarre lifestyle of some of his friends there. The tension left the room in tiny increments, like the slow leakage of fans in the late innings of a baseball game.
I retreated from the room. The fingers of my right hand touched lightly the old wood of the table as I rose. On it were faint markings; not words, but gentle indentations that seemed to be made by a knowing hand long ago. It was slightly uneven under my fingertips, each bump and groove made by those of my blood.
I excused myself from the table and went into the kitchen, my palms down on the counter. Feeling the cold air coming through the milk chute, I opened the side door and stepped out into the cold night air. It was crisp in a way that a spring day of the same temperature cannot be, and leaves rustled under my feet. Crossing my arms against the cold, I walked slowly down the driveway and sat on the stone wall across the street from the house, sitting on my hands and looking down at the rough fieldstones. Slowly, I looked up at the house. Out of the windows of the dining room suffused a beautiful yellow light, candlelight. Inside, bathed in the light was my family, all of us Triggs who were left. It was like standing outside of a dance hall, able to see the dancers without hearing the music. The diners leaned over their plates, their hands arcing in front of them. The light, viewed from outside, was transformative of those inside, taking off the hard edges of their voices and the imperfections in complexion; the light made the very people who could so anger me look uniformly beautiful. I was angry at my Aunt for being crass, at my father for doing for someone else what he had never done for me, at Lisa Diamond for not already loving and trusting me, and for not taking my hand again so that I could share her pain. But the anger was a part of the light, and I sat in the cold air for the better part of a half hour, taking warmth from it.
Looking down the block, I saw the edges of similar scenes. A man carrying a plate. Two children wrestling. An elderly woman in a chair.
In my own house, I could see Michael talking to Bobby, gesturing with his hands. My father swept into the room, clearing plates and pouring water. David Sand, ramrod straight in his chair, was discussing something with Ericka, lover of all creatures. At the end of the table, the candles playing off their light hair, were Aunt Sam and Lisa Diamond. The younger woman was making a forceful point, the flat of her hand paralleling the table as she finished a sentence. Her gestures suggested a person on the near edge of control. She did not need me to protect her from Aunt Sam. But perhaps she needed me.
The cold became too much, and I jammed my fingers further into my pockets and returned to the house. Michael was in the kitchen, picking bits off of the turkey.
"Hey, brother," I said, my hands jammed into my pockets and my cheeks flushed.
"Hey," he said, "little cold out for a walk, huh?"
For some reason I felt the urge to tell where I had been to this brother who knew so little about me. "I went outside to look into the window. You know, see everybody eating under the candlelight and everything."
He nodded knowingly. "That's pretty much our culture in there, isn't it? A little bit of family, a little bit of privilege, a healthy measure of decadence and comfort. That's where we came from."
As usual, I marvelled at his ability to articulate. Maybe what he had said was what I had been thinking, sort of, but I wasn't sure anymore. "It's just sort of a beautiful thing," I muttered.
"Hey, Buddy, I wanted to tell you that I'm thinking about coming back to Chicago. Maybe go work with Dad."
It took me a few moments to let his words sink in. "That would be great," I said, managing a wan smile. "All of us in one place again. I mean, almost all of us. Wow."
"I just think it might work out better for me here. Nothing against New York, but home is home. I guess you already knew that, huh?" He smiled again, his smile of painless confidence.
"Sure, that's why I'm here. This is home. Well, that and Sarah. You know, that woman in D.C. It was just sort of time to move."
"I remember her," he said abruptly, the raw edge of his impatience with my lack of excitement beginning to show. "So, do your have a plan yet?"
"A plan for what?"
"A plan for doing something besides being a runner for a law firm." He stood there, waiting for an answer.
"Do I have to have some sort of plan?"
"Right, Buddy, no one has to have a plan. We can all just get old and live in Dad's house, right?" There was a long pause as I looked at the turkey and refused to answer. "Anyway," he said finally, "I'd better get out there and straighten out Aunt Sam about this whole Jewish thing, huh?" He lightly punched my shoulder and walked out.
I felt sick to my stomach. I had never considered the thought of his coming back. There was in me the strong feeling of being robbed again, this time of the little psychic change I had managed to gather in my pocket from my none-too-impressive job.
Feeling rotten already, my mood was not improved by Bobby's reappearance in the kitchen. "Hey, where've you been?"
"Went for a little walk. It's beautiful out."
"Huh. I don't think anyone noticed. You missed some great stuff, though. Aunt Sam tried to recover by asking everyone to go around the table and say how they felt about abortion."
"Man," I said, "this is some kind of a new record."
"She's on a roll, all right. It's something about the South, Buddy, I swear. People down at UVA, they all have relatives like that, the ones from the South. Your Dad's family... I don't know. All that South Carolina stuff. I mean, your Dad's all right and everything. What the heck is an Old Sedalia, anyways?"
"It's an old house, I think," I responded.
"Lot of talk for an old house."
"From what I hear," I said, "it's a pretty incredible old house. Down on the water near a swamp, and surrounded by these little houses. My Dad told me a little about it years ago."
I looked out at my family. Such a small little group; there was something pervasively sad to me about that. On holidays, there was always a time where I caught my father with a look that reflected his thoughts—heartsick that my Mother was not there, no doubt freighted with memories of other holidays. It made me want to hug him or something, but that wasn’t the way of our family. Our way was just to leave a person alone with their own private thoughts. What could I say? I know that on that day, not only his wife died, but also his sense of order in the world, of a loving God, of a world which made much sense. While in other men this mix of feelings might have come out in violence or anger, in him they turned inward to form a simple and overpowering sadness.
As he sat alone with his thoughts, Aunt Sam was pontificating again on her favorite topic. “The difference between people in the South and people in the North is that in the South people have respect for tradition. Up here, people are considered advanced if they remember who their own parents are. In South Carolina, you learned as a young child the history of your house, the story of the plantation and the people who lived there. Knowing the history gives meaning to people's lives, stability. You know, South Carolina started the civil war because they saw that the North didn't respect their traditions."
Michael broke in on her righteousness, the only one of us who could have done so. "Aunt Sam, it's hard to respect a tradition of slavery."
"It wasn't just slavery, it was everything that was going to have to change, the whole structure. Tradition was the pride of the South."
"Tradition was the tragedy of the South," Michael responded, "it seems that they couldn't distinguish good traditions from immoral ones, or tradition from habit. I just don't see the value of preserving an immoral tradition."
"That's because you aren't from South Carolina."
"Hmmm-- that's a novel argument, Aunt Sam. Anyways, if it's so great in South Carolina, why did you leave?" Michael parried.
"I went to Chicago for a boy. It was a mistake." Shaking her spoon at Lisa Diamond, she added, "don't ever move anyplace for a boy unless you are married to him."
"I wouldn't," Lisa Diamond said with surprising conviction. She and Aunt Sam had found common ground.
Closing her pontification, Aunt Sam made a flourish with her spoon, and a drop of coffee flew over the tablecloth. "All men are trustworthy, if you make it worth their while to be trustworthy."
Lisa Diamond and Aunt Sam shared a laugh over this, and Michael joined in. I was still trying to sort out Aunt Sam's advice, which Lisa had seemed to understand instantaneously. Across the room, David Sand stood up and looked around expectantly. Everything he did annoyed me. I suppose some of my feelings were born of simple jealousy, in that his place in the professional world was so much clearer than mine, but I also sensed too much pride in that status. He refused to speak until people looked at him, and until then would just stand like a none-too-patient owl. Looking at his watch once the majority of those in the room were looking at him, he said, "well, looks like it's time to go. It really has been an interesting evening."
Lisa shot him a look that said "you're a dork." But only briefly; she stood and began her good-byes.
I watched her leave in the Midwestern stages of departure: Pleasantries at the door, in the driveway next to the car, through the car window with the engine running. I participated only in the first stage, feeling self-conscious about being near to her. They sped down the street just as another car pulled up. There was a knock at the door, and Michael leapt to answer it.
From the dining room, I could hear the unique har-har-har laugh of Mark L., and soon my friend bounded into the room and embraced my Aunt Sam, a maneuver he loved because it so shocked her. That done, he sat down in the seat vacated by Lisa Diamond, and greeted the assembled family members, each of whom he was familiar with.
Michael stood up and stretched. "Sorry, folks, but that's about it for me. I've got to go back to the city tonight."
"The city?" Mark L. Davis asked. "What is Chicago to you, some sort of rural crossroads?" Mark and Michael had never gotten along, and Mark went out of his way to antagonize my brother.
"Hey, sorry. Wish I could stay and chat, but LaGuardia calls." He smiled pleasantly, depriving Mark of the little victory he sought.
Michael and our father walked out to the rental car Michael had picked up at the airport. Through the window, I could see them talk as Michael held the open door.
"Jerk," Mark said under his breath after my elder sibling had left and we retreated to the living room. "And those cousins of yours-- they just get more bizarre every year. They look like College Republican Vice-Presidents. I guess that's what happens when Mom makes the oatmeal with leftover bongwater."
Mark waved his hand dismissively. "Never mind."
I tugged at my own bit of white hair over my temple. "I think it's cool, even if it is a little skunk-like." Mark nodded conspiratorily. Then he sat for a moment, watching me intently. He was quite a student of my moods, and could read me like a map.
"What?" he asked.
"What do you mean, what?"
"What's going on? What got to you tonight?"
There were no secrets from Mark. He could tell there was something new. I shrugged. "Woman. Works with my Dad."
Mark grimaced. "God, Buddy, not this again. Remember the last time you got like this? Now you can't go back to the East Coast. You're not going to do that whole Sarah-obsession scene again, are you?"
There was nothing else to tell him-- he already knew. That he could see, and that was plenty.
Mark looked suddenly serious, which was unusual for him. "You know what you need, Buddy?" He looked at me intently.
"Hey, I know what I want."
Mark ignored me. "You have to find your prophet, Buddy. Like that professor told you. You find your prophet, then you can deal with all these other people."
"Maybe," I said, looking beyond him to where my father was doing dishes. "I know that my brother makes me feel like an incredible ne'er-do-well. Not that I would want to be like him. I think he might move back here. I have to get out of here, Mark."
Mark shook his head sadly and changed the topic. "Your Aunt do anything good this year?"
"The usual South Carolina crap," I said, skipping over the worst of it. "She's into the football game now, I think. My cousin told me about a sexual escapade he had with some sorority girl. The usual." I had made the part about my cousin up; I don't know why. It seemed to fit.
We sat for a while in silence, the clanking of plates in the sink not far off. Mark looked lost in thought before turning back to me. Mark was a master of the non-sequitur, and I knew that a real doozy was coming up. He picked at one of his fingers, then looked up at me. "You ever do anything really bad?"
Just the normal adolescent episodes of violence, I guess. Except for them occurring through age 28, nothing too unusual."
Mark sat up, intrigued. "Like what?"
"I don't know. Stupid stuff. I've told you about this stuff before. One year... geez, it must have been about five years ago. I was walking down the street at about three in the morning. I was walking my bike, actually, through this town in Maryland that Sarah and I had gone out to ride bikes around in. I broke one of the struts on the bike riding around in the dark after we had a big fight. The strut actually broke completely off, and I was holding it in my hand. Anyways, I was pretty pissed, and was walking down the street with this strut. There was one of those little storefront Dianetics centers on the main street. You know, those L. Ron Hubbard joints with the weird literature?"
"So I'm walking along thinking about Sarah and holding this strut, and I see the big plate glass window with the dianetics sign on it, like it was some sort of harmless pharmacy or something. So I took the broken part of the strut and scratched the glass. It wasn't a big scratch, but it was noticeable, right over the lettering. It felt really good to do that. Anyways, I stood back and looked at it, and then I threw the bike through the bottom of the window. It was sort of weird, because the glass didn't shatter; instead it just dropped to the ground with this intense noise. Just kept on walking."
"That counts as an incident of violence," Mark said quietly.
Telling the story exhausted me. I had not revealed part of the story, knowing Mark’s skepticism of my sometimes faith. When I threw the bike I had yelled “heresy!” It felt great at the moment, then incredibly stupid the next. I had no orthodoxy, after all—my sense of God was not then any more formed than that of the people meeting in that storefront.
We sat again in silence on the big leather couches, slouched against the backs. My father started to whistle in the kitchen. He was a good whistler, one of the few people I knew whom you could listen to and tell what it was they were whistling. He was whistling "Silent Night."
Mark looked about ready to fade. "My family was incredibly normal this year," he said lethargically. "Holidays are pretty boring now that we all get along. In fact, it's so boring that I might even go back there now." His cynicism was transparent, and I was glad to hear once again that the dark years had ended. I walked him out to his car, which was at the foot of the driveway.
"Hey, you still need me to go with you on that job thing?" he called out the car window.
I had forgotten about the job, which was the mysterious assignment for Tenerife Baker. "I have to talk to her. Next week."
"Right," he said, and drove off. We had the stability in our friendship that allowed good-byes to be brief, a marking place in a continuous whole rather than a breaking off. I sat on the wall and watched the car go down the street, stopping at the sign at the end of the block, then turning right, perpendicular to the lake.
Turning, I looked in to see the warm light still emanating from the dining room in the front of the house. It was my job, as always, to blow out the candles once the day was over. It was an old tradition, from the days that my Mother couldn't blow out the candles because it made her too sad.
Entering through the side door, I heard laughter. Looking through the dining room door, I saw my father and great-aunt hunched over the electric football game, a gift from Mark a previous Christmas and ceremoniously hauled out for each holiday: My Aunt clutching a handful of Green Bay Packers and arguing that it should count as a touchdown if any of the players crossed the goal line. I watched them, outlined against the reddish wall lit by the embers from the fireplace, my father reaching out to place his players in a line, his face intent on the task. At times like this, I missed him already. Not that he was gone; it was more that I realized the fragility of his life.
Resisting first the urge to join them and then the desire to sit for a moment on the day bed in the studio, I turned towards the dining room and cleared the last of the silverware, as the candle flames reached the silver, which held them like the palm of a hand.
Saturday, July 30, 2011
Water Behind Us: Chapter 1 (Summer)
This is the first chapter of a novel I wrote many years ago. I will include following chapters over the next several days.
Water Behind Us
by Mark Osler
What I remember best about Chicago is the feel of stone. Each day as I left on my messenger-boy assignments, I ritually touched the same small spot just outside the revolving doors of the massive building on Lasalle Street, where the stone skin of the building began its rise. The stone was always cool like gun-metal, even in the summer when the humidity filled up the canyon spreading out in front of the Board of Trade.
My job took me all over the city, but each trip started with that touch, then the walk across the street towards the old bank building, right on LaSalle to Jackson. Only eighty feet across from the top floor of our building stood the statue atop the Board of Trade, a Goddess of Commerce with arms outstretched, imploring the prairie to yield up its wealth. No one was supposed to have gotten up there to see her face, but now LaSalle Street could, from its top floors, discover her secret--she had no features at all, only the gleaming roundness of the human form, designed to be viewed from the ground far below.
Her sterling gesture saw me off on my tasks, which primarily consisted of running papers to the courts, serving summonses and complaints on unsuspecting parties, and picking up packages. It was humbling work for someone born with the name David Baxten Trigg II, a name that said too much in a city like Chicago. The descriptiveness of my name may have been why, at birth, I had been given the somewhat less off-putting nickname of Buddy.
My office was exactly 51 floors below my father's, which is a striking contrast in a 50-story building. With me in the basement were the lowliest servants of Taylor, Toth & Moore-- word processors, bookkeepers, and "runners", myself being one of the latter. My tiny cubicle was wedged between two translators, who spent much of their time listening to tapes on their headsets, asleep. It was a tight fit for someone six-foot-three, especially when the floor caught the overflow of the stacks of boxes and papers which made their way to my desk.
A job slip was sitting on my chair, marked "urgent." This wasn't unusual-- everything I got was marked "urgent." It was signed "T. Conran, Esq.," a sure sign that the assignor was somewhat full of himself. I looked him up in the office directory, and found his name listed with the litigators. I didn't know T. Conran, but I had a hunch. My guess was that he would be a lean, hungry, arrogant guy a year or so younger than I was, out to impress the partners. I underestimated him somewhat. He was a short, somewhat thick man, with very short dark hair that still managed to be a little disheveled. Turning in his chair to face me while hanging up the phone abruptly, he pointed at my chest and said, "Buddy, right? I've heard good things. I'm Tommy Conran."
We shook hands and I sat down in the broken chair across the desk from him. "Tort waiting to happen," he said, waiving at the broken arm of the chair, "you'd think they would worry more about that around here."
"No kidding," I said, lifting the broken arm.
"Just like your Dad," he said quickly.
"Your hair," he said, pointing. "I heard your Dad used to have that. One of the old-timers told me."
What he pointed at was the thatch of white hair at my temple, standing out from the darkness of the rest. My father colored his now. It was a genetic trait, a whitlock.
"Yeah," I responded, "I don't know what his problem was with it, but he got rid of it. It's still there, under the coloring and everything." I declined to explain my family further to the novice lawyer.
"Whatever," T. Conran said, waving it off with his hand. "We got business." His voice had the clipped tones of the East, a displaced New Yorker or Bostonian. While Chicagoans were hurried, they rarely sounded like it so much as those from the East; it was a distinction I had picked up in college.
Shuffling through a file, T. Conran snorted as he pulled out a photograph, sliding it across the smooth unweathered wood of his desk. It was a snapshot of a woman, a slightly overweight blond, standing in front of a suburban house. She wore khaki pants, a graying white shirt and a somewhat weary expression. Her two children, a boy and a girl, stood beside her. There was something at once annoying and pitiful about the woman, in her stance and slack expression.
"Janet Larson," T. Conran said, "surgeon. She and her husband are both surgeons. You ever work with doctors before?"
I shook my head.
"God, they're the worst," T. Conran said, looking like he was going to spit. "They think they're omniscient about everything, including law. Spend most of their time telling you how the hell you should be doing your job. Anyways, we work for the husband. Tony Oleone-- they call him Tono. Tono the surgeon. Divorce."
I must have flinched at the word, because T. Conran looked up abruptly.
"What, is that a problem?"
"No, no," I replied, "I just know how ugly that can get. People get shot at." I reached into my pocket as we spoke, touching a pack of matches and an old lottery ticket, a $2 winner.
"You won't get shot at. These people are just mean, maybe arrogant, not lethal. Anyways, Tono and Larsen finished their residencies four years ago, so now they're into the serious bucks. From what he tells me, they both meet other people, start fooling around. Buy fast cars. Leave the kids in day care. Twins. You probably noticed that." He pointed at the photo.
Picking it up again, I looked at the children. Kids made me nervous. T. Conran continued, gesturing with a pen as if conducting an inattentive symphony.
"So, things get complicated for our client and Larsen. They yell at each other, yell at the kids. About a year ago he moves out and they get a court order for joint custody of the kids. He moved out of their big old house in Homewood-- pool, hot tub, lawn service, all that. So Tono moves out and finds a flashy apartment in the Loop, spends money on girlfriends, probably drinks too much, whatever. He's having a wild time, and she's just sulking. They're switching off with the kids still, and the kids think Dad's getting a little weird.
"About two months ago, I got a letter from Larsen's lawyer. He's saying that he has evidence of child abuse. Word-processor crap, trust me. I've seen the exact same letter from this guy before. Anyways, they serve Tono with an Order to Show Cause. You know what that is?"
I nodded with what I thought was a jaded, knowing expression. As I was reminded everyday, however, I wasn't trained in the law, and T. Conran didn't bite. "If you think someone is violating a court order, you can force them to go before the Court to explain their apparent failure. To make them do this, you file a Motion to Show Cause, and serve it on the person at least seven days before the scheduled hearing."
I nodded again. T. Conran wasn't so bad; arrogant but smart, which is better than arrogant and dumb. I saw a lot of arrogant and dumb.
"We have the hearing, and of course the judge finds that there is no evidence that anything bad has happened to the kids, besides being exposed to a few "Uncle Norman" type characters."
That one I knew-- Uncle Norman, the goofy pal from "The Courtship of Eddie's Father", who wore a turleneck and a big peace sign pendant and used the word "groovy." T. Conran laughed briefly at his own words, seeing that I had gotten the joke.
"So then the Judge changes the custody decree so that Tono gets the kids every other month. Before that, it was just on weekends. You married?"
I shook my head.
"Me neither. I mean, why? I don't get it. It's like some biblical urge, from what people who do it say. One day you wake up and fold the cards and sign up. Anyways, the time comes for our man Tono to get the kids. He drives over to her house and she's gone. Cleared out. He tries her folks, some friends, can't find her. So now its up to us."
I nodded, and took the lottery ticket out of my pocket and looked at it discreetly underneath the edge of the desk. 1-9-6-1. 1-8-6-2 was the winner. Halfway there wins $2 in Illinois. I liked having it in my pocket more than I would have enjoyed the $2.
"So we need to serve her with the Motion to show cause. That's why I need you. And you need cash, I'll bet. Here's the deal-- you get her by tomorrow, and there's $375 in it for you. You up for it?"
"You bet," I said, paying attention again. $375 would go a long ways towards putting myself up in an apartment. I had chased that tiny lump of money for a while, always just short of moving out of my father's house in Kenilworth. There was a certain stigma to looking thirty in the face and not having your own address.
Conran was tapping the end of a pencil against his desk and looking down. Quickly, he looked up again. "You went to Williams, I heard."
"Yeah," I told him, "about a million years ago. You know about it?"
"Sure, I went to Amherst." There was the hint of a conspiratorial smile, the sharing of something secret. The little three were relatively unknown in Chicago, where Lincoln Park teemed with the sweatshirts (and sweat) of the Big Ten.
Conran tapped his pencil again, self-consciously. "I heard that from someone who knows your Dad. It must be a little weird, doing what you do here."
"Nah." I had no patience for this line of conversation. I hated the thought of him pitying me, but didn't sense that so much as a bit of empathy.
"I'm not so sure I'll be doing this next year either, so maybe it all ends up the same," Conran said, nodding and rising from his chair.
With a forced smile on my face, I stood up. "Good to meet you," I said, backing out the door as I turned down towards the elevator and the nut-brown paneling and the familiar, faint smell of leather. That was the worst part of my job: the understated curiosity of the attorneys as to why I was doing such menial work. I had learned to deflect the questions, keep a straight face, and move on quickly.
Walking out to the garage of the building, I started to gather my thoughts. In my hand was the photo from Conran, and a sheaf of papers he had handed me that I had not looked at. I stopped outside the door to the garage, in the cement-block vestibule, trying to get on track and come up with a plan. A group of people walked past me, and I tried to look down as if I was waiting for someone. It was a talent-- the ability to be accepted as Guy Just Standing Around Harmlessly, especially in a parking garage.
One of the group who had passed me wheeled and called out to me, pointing. "Buddy! Buddy Trigg! I need you!"
It was Tenerife Baker, an associate a few years senior to T. Conran, but with a presence and a manner that made her a figure to contend with inside the firm. She stood 6'1", with a subtle shift of her shoulders that hinted of playfulness and offset the deadset demeanor conveyed by her eyes, briefcase, and directed air. "I got something else for you to do, Buddy," she said without stepping closer, "and not another Gary run."
She had sent me the week before to drop some papers off with some clients in Gary, who had turned out to be her cousins. They had lived in a poor neighborhood, with a sign looming almost directly above the house directing cars on the Skyway overhead to the United States Steel plant.
Looking up and smiling, I pointed back at her. "You got me. Whatever. Call."
Walking away already, she winked at me over her shoulder. Tenerife took me seriously, and I liked her. The first time I had gone into her office, I had quickly looked at the diplomas on the wall-- Delta State, Harvard Law. That night I had gotten out the atlas, and found Delta State in Mississippi, not far from the river. I watched her walking away and wondered why she had picked me to go to her cousins'. Perhaps she mistakenly thought it would be my first time in a black family's house.
For a moment, I stood by the doorway, protecting my cover of waiting for someone. Having given it a few minutes, I walked to my car, put the file on the passenger seat and slid behind the wheel. The car had been purchased by my Mother 22 years before. An old Chevy Malibu needs heavy maintenance, but there were times that I enjoyed working with my hands, even if it was only to change the oil are replace a headlight. Unlike so much else in my life, these tasks were easily quantifiable as successes—the oil was changed, the turn signal worked.
Sitting in the car, the keys still in my hand, I realized that I was still without a plan of attack. I had learned that such a plan was essential on these tasks-- one couldn't simply set out wandering. I opened the file on the bench seat and pulled a pen and the lottery ticket from my pocket. On the back of the lottery ticket I wrote:
1) Find out where Mother's parents are.
2) Find Mark L.
3) Find her car
Number one was a natural-- it was logical that she had simply gone to stay with her folks, who were protecting her. Looking through the folder, I found where Conran had jotted their address. 432 Thurston Way, Northbrook. The other two notations were back-up. Mark L. was my childhood buddy who had grown into a information guru-- he was able to nurse things out of the internet that probably shouldn't be there. Should even Mark fail, I would resort to tracking her vehicle identification.
Driving out the Edens expressway to Northbrook, I picked crumbs and leaves out of the crevices of the seat. It was a very old but very good car. Because it had belonged to my mother, it was one of the few places that I could hear her voice, and it was this voice that directed me to keep the car tidy.
Janet Larsen's parents lived on a long cul-de-sac, in a ranch house that was relatively small for the neighborhood. It was squarish and solid.
In front of the house was a statuary deer, its head tilted to one side as if listening for a certain car, likely a Lincoln, coming down the block. On the mailbox was the name "Larson," woodburned onto a polished board attached to the post below the box itself. The Larsons appeared to have tried to make up for the lack of trees with shrubbery, which obscured the front yard save for two strips of lawn and a brick walkway.
I had two options-- I could sit and wait and see who came home or left, or I could simply go up to the door and see who was home. Having chosen the latter, I briefly considered concealing the purpose of my visit, saying I was from the hospital and had to hand-deliver a paycheck to Janet. I rejected the thought, uncomfortable about the bold-faced lie involved. With my heart beating faster, I approached the door.
Since I was very small, I have been able to sense where people are. It is a physical feeling-- a sensation that tells me whether people are nearby or not. Not a tingling, like Spiderman; it is more knowing in the way that you might know without looking that there is a steel railing next to your bare arm. An inchoate sense, I guess. As I walked up to the Larson's front door, I felt the presence of the people inside.
First I rang the bell, then knocked, and stepped back to wait. They were in there, and after awhile they would realize that I was not going away. After a few minutes there was a rustling in the curtains next to the door, and a glimpse of white hair through the window. I rang again, and waited another five minutes. Finally, without my having rung again, the door swung open and a woman of about sixty forced a smile on the far side of the threshold. "May I help you?" she asked, her voice as stiff as her hair.
She wore a mask I had seen before, one that covered up the obvious, and pretended that she was simply answering the bell. It amazes me sometimes who it is that has the capacity to tell the biggest lies.
I smiled. "Ma'am, my name is Buddy Trigg, and I work for a law firm downtown. Is your daughter Janet here?"
Still maintaining her smile, though the strain became increasingly apparent, she held the door at an angle with her right hand and parried, "What is this regarding?"
Her face reflected a thousand emotions: anger, at both me and her daughter; embarrassment; worry; a hint of fear. There was a brief silence, in which I decided to push her into reality, to end the game. "We represent your daughter's husband in the divorce case," I said, "and we've run into kind of a problem that is sort of making it hard for everybody. There is a court order that says they have joint custody, but Janet hasn't turned the children over at all, and we don't even know where to reach her to find out. It's not really such a adversarial thing right now. We just want to find out what's going on."
The mask did not break. "I don't think I can..."
In my anger, I imagined reaching for a gun. It shocked me sometimes, but at times of intense frustration I did imagine it; the feel of the grip, the reaction of surprise. I imagined the sound of it, the loudness, a spike of heat.
My anxiety showing, I cut her off. "I'm not a lawyer or anything. Really. I'm just kind of a messenger. I drive around in my car and just... I just work for the lawyers, I do what they... I just need to see her, if she's here."
"I'm sorry I can't help you," she said with sickly sweetness, closing the door a little too firmly. Stepping back, I knew that she was doing the same on the other side, protecting her fief.
I backed down the driveway, watching the windows for her face. I stepped into my car, pulling the door shut softly behind me, both hands on the handle.
For fifteen minutes, sitting there in silence, I waited for something large to happen-- the police to come, the woman to come out and scream, for the father to charge out with a gun. Then the feeling of tenseness faded, and I let my back rest fully on the seat of the car and took my eyes off of the house. My car could not be seen from the windows of the house, but I could see anyone entering or exiting from the walk or driveway.
A simple sort of depression born of boredom and disappointment settled in, and I turned sideways on the bench seat, putting my feet up on the passenger side. With my left hand, I reached over and turned on the radio.
I noodled around the AM dial. On the flat plains of the Midwest, especially at night, it is possible to pull in stations from as far away as St. Louis, Nashville, and the East Coast. I found WBZ in Boston, where two men were talking about the Red Sox with great passion. There was a pitcher who just might be faking an injury, and this one kid down in the minors who someday would play shortstop at Fenway. This was wonderfully familiar. I had gone far away to college, and sometimes I found myself in the hills of Western Massachusetts, falling asleep to men on WBZ taking the Red Sox very, very seriously. The sound warmed me, and I smiled to myself as I sat in the dark.
Still, nothing came in or out of the house. The sports program ended, and the news came on. There was a war, and fear of terrorists with nuclear weapons, and a politician charged with bribery. I turned off the radio and sat in the silence as the edges of darkness crept down the block towards my car. Every now and again a large sedan would wend down the street, a large sedan slowing down to look at the unfamiliar car with the young man in the front seat. I was out of place, and welcomed the darkness and its protective cloak.
With the sun sunken into the red horizon and the street lights only providing a dim haze, I slunk down in the seat and looked at the door of the house. Staking out a quiet suburban residence took very little effort, I had quickly found. I probably could have just gone to sleep unnoticed on their lawn. The idea was appealing, given the soft warmth of the evening. I have always loved dusk on a clear summer day, a stillness which defines the season. Enjoying it, I slipped off into slumber.
The sun woke me up, along with the hot, damp, horrible feeling one gets from sticking to a vinyl seat. As I rose up in the sunlight, there was a faint ripping sound as the wetness of my shirt separated from the seat-back. I sat upright for a few minutes, feeling sorry for myself, and swearing under my breath. Looking in the mirror, I found that I had slept with my face against the patterned inside of the car door, and the pattern was now imprinted on the left side of my face. I felt the ripples in my face with my fingertip.
Slowly, I wrenched my uncomfortable body around in the seat so that I was beneath the wheel. What I wanted and needed to do was to get out of the car and stretch, but I felt intimidated by the stillness and the dew and the quiet artificiality of the neighborhood. This had been a farmers' field not so long ago, and the sound of a tractor rounding out a row in the early light would have replaced the hum of the electrical wires in the morning stillness.
The drive to Kenilworth took only twenty minutes. Driving down the Edens, I looked into the other cars, expecting to see tired people. I was surprised-- most of them looked pretty good, ready for the day. As I passed a grey Honda, the man inside peered back at me. His face registered first disapproval, then amusement. I realized that I did not look like someone on his way to work, but someone who had fallen asleep in the wrong place. In the college dorm we had called them "lawners", because of their sheepish, sloppy walk across the lawn as they headed home before class.
I pulled up in front of our house, and parked in the street. Though the house was not small, my Mother had insisted that the house not have a circular driveway. So, instead, we ended up with a fairly long winding single-lane drive which meant that if I had parked in the drive I would have blocked my father's only path out. The main part of the house faced the street, except for a short wing to the back containing the breakfast room, a pantry, the den, the studio, and the back bathroom. After my Mother died, my brother and father and I had gravitated towards that back wing, eating our meals in the breakfast room and talking in the small den or studio. The studio was probably my favorite room in the house, with a skylight, my mother's easel and drawing table, a small refrigerator, and a day bed. Sometimes, when my father was not at home, I would close my eyes and smell the scents my mother surrounded herself with, and imagine myself sitting on the daybed and watching her gentle brushstrokes.
Opening the old screen door, I went into the kitchen. I knew that my father would be up-- he must have had farm-family instincts which woke him up at six every morning, even when he had been working late into the night. Entering the foyer, I smelled fresh coffee and banana. I could have avoided him by sneaking up the back stairs to my room, but chose to join him in the breakfast room. As I passed through the pantry, he looked up and smiled. My father was not at first glance the type one would think of as a big-shot lawyer; he was too handsome. His grey-blue eyes always looked right into mine, unashamed.
"There's a good story here, Buddy, isn't there?" He looked at my hair and laughed.
I touched my cheek and felt the lingering imprint of the vinyl. "Just doing my job, Pop. You know somebody-or-other Conran?"
Nodding vaguely, my father pursed his lips slightly. "I think I do. Sort of a thick guy. New York type."
"Right. He sent me out on kind of a stake-out." I waited for him to pry a little bit, to bring the story out.
"All right, well, shower time for you. I put your mail up in your room," he said, smiling and turning back to his newspaper. For a moment I stood there, waiting for him to turn back to me, but he didn't. As I walked up the main stairs, I heard the pages of the paper turn, and as I got into the shower heard his car back down the driveway, turn slowly, and head off into the simple grid of tree-shaded streets that is Kenilworth. The exchange captured the essence of our life together.
The mail was a letter from Williams soliciting donations and personal updates for the alumni newsletter. In the nearly eight years since my graduation, I had never filled out the information form; I had started more than once, and each time gave up on the project feeling slightly depressed. I read the class notes in the newsletter with a sort of bizarre, morose fascination. My classmates were getting medical certification, becoming government lawyers, starting businesses. I could not compete, which is why I never sent in my own little bio. None of them, however, looked forward to work that day as much as I did. I felt lucky. Janet Larson was holding my $375, and I was smart enough to find her.
I stayed in the shower longer than necessary, thinking about my next step in the search for Janet Larson. There had been no new cars in the driveway when I had left. Which left me with nothing, or worse, as Janet Larson probably knew by now that someone was looking for her.
There was hope, however, in summoning a little help from my friends, or friend, in my case. I had one close friend that could help find people who didn't want to be found-- Mark L., the only kid I could beat in boxing as a kid, and the only one who could beat me in chess. He worked in the State of Illinois Building in the Loop, which would be my first stop.
Walking down the stairs, I put on a tie. This was something that I had picked up from my father. I remember as a small child, when we still ate breakfast in the dining room, watching him come down the steps slowly, cinching the tie to his collar and sniffing for the smell of breakfast. Sometimes on Sundays we would emerge at the same time, tugging at our ties in preparation for church.
Heading down the block to turn towards the loop, I passed Mark L.'s parents' house, a broad white colonial with fireplaces at each end and a beautiful porch off of the kitchen. It was on that porch that I had once seen Mark's father hit him, once, in the face. He was upset that Mark had decided not to stay at Dartmouth, the father's alma mater. Time had been long in healing those wounds, but the healing had happened and the scabs receded each day as the family became accustomed to being a group of adults. Mark's car was gone; he customarily went to work well before eight.
I took Lake Shore Drive into the city. It was, and is, my favorite road in the world, sweeping into the loop with whiplike grace as it hugs the lake. On that summer day the lake itself was a beautiful color, more blue than emerald-- like blue topaz, the stone that I had bought for a girlfriend once because the color shone like the lake. To my left, people were running and biking in Lincoln Park. They seemed impossibly ambitious.
Mark L. had done a good job of maintaining a fake cynicism over the years. He had learned early on that a jaded attitude was quickly accepted by superiors, while the idealism or hope he truly held inside would brand him as dangerous. I had watched his actions, though, and knew that he trusted in our species in a rare way. On our worst day, I had screamed at him. He was silent, then quietly said "you'll feel different tomorrow." His gift was a glistening intellect and a gentle nature that I longed to have.
Mark had tried to explain his job to me several times, and had failed. I knew that it had something to do with computers and that the state paid him to configure some sort of system. He was good at it, I knew, and he liked it. Beyond that, I didn't worry about it.
His office was large but constantly hot and humid, an effect that was emphasized by the tropical plants that Mark kept around. I found him chewing on a pencil and watching numbers flash on a screen above his desk, which he had suspended from the ceiling with different colored shoelaces. I knocked lightly on the open door.
"Hey!" Mark L. said, rising from his seat and giving me a small hug.
"Geez," I said, flinching slightly, "you don't always have to hug me, man."
Mark L. didn't acknowledge my comment. "Buddy, good to have you, you deserve it. So what's up? What brings you to the hellhole?" He turned and punched something on the keyboard, and the screen quickly changed to display a rotating planet with blue oceans and green continents.
Settling into the tired couch in the corner, I launched into the tale of Janet, the surgeon husband, the twins. "Anyways," I concluded, "I've got until this afternoon to get her with the Motion."
Mark L. shook his head. "Back up a little. Do you have to read this to her, or what?"
"Nothing like that. The key word is contact. I put it in an envelope, and if that envelope comes into contact with her, I win."
"It's interesting that you call that winning," said Mark, pausing, then continuing, "did you call her employer?"
I shook my head no. "She's a doctor, but I don't know where."
"Wouldn't work anyways. Insurance runs the hospitals now. They won't tell anyone who might be a potential plaintiff anything over the phone." Mark L. flashed a brief, devious smile. "Don't ask me how I know that."
Mark L. turned to his computer, and the screen changed again, to a swirling pattern with pilgrims in black hats looking over a cliff into a swirling vortex. "You've got one chance, but it's a good one. The kids."
I tried to look past him to the screen as it changed again to a password screen.
"Every kid in the state has to be registered in school by now. Do you have their names?"
I shoveled the slip of paper with the names under his arm as he worked through two more security screens. There was a moment of silence as his fingers stopped tapping. Finally, picuters and text flashed on the screen. "Three hits," he said evenly. "One in Vandalia, and two in the same school down on the South Side, the Lake Calumet Christian Academy. I'll print this out."
Silently, my answer slipped out of the printer by his desk as he turned again towards me. Mark had a way of trying to make everything significant, and his efforts were always proceeded by this sort of pause. I knew it was coming, but I just waited; he was my friend. "Back when I was in elementary school, I had this kind of secret game. When they let us all out of the school at the end of the day, I pretended that we were all sort of secret commandos on our way to some mission. That we were all kind of a team working for something, instead of being a dork trying to get out of everyone's way. Sometimes this stuff you have me do, it feels like that, Buddy. I like that."
Mark L. often got a little too wrapped up in the emotional end of things for me, and I felt the need to escape. "Thanks a million," I said, shaking his hand, backing out the door, and running down the hall with the school name and address clenched in my right hand. It's not that I wasn't getting along with him, or even that I didn't agree with him; it's just that I didn't want to hang around and talk about it.
The South Side was forbidden territory, the far side of the line between the known and the unknown for us North-siders. I had been south of the Loop only to visit museums and, once, to go to a White Sox game. In short, the South Side was everything that my family was not, and it struck me that it was quite a break for Janet Larson as well.
Lake Shore Drive abandoned me in the South Shore neighborhood, where the numbered streets marched onwards past storefront churches, empty shells of buildings and cars, tiny restaurants, and posters for politicians I did not recognize. On the left, there lay the aftermath of an enormous fire; charred wrecks of buildings lay on the ground, and the sidewalk was black with scorch marks. At one end, next to a church, charred rubble leaned against the wall and spilled out over the sidewalk as the people walked around it.
The neighborhoods tumbled by unevenly. There was one building, red brick, a church, on which the morning sun played with intense beauty. People had obviously scrubbed the brick clean, scraping off the dirt and soot. I imagined the parishioners up on ladders, the minister below handing out buckets. I knew that my church wouldn't do that-- we paid some guys to do it when we weren't around.
After tens of blocks, the neighborhood changed to one of tiny brick homes with lawns that seemed enormous compared to the houses. On either side of the neighborhood loomed giant factories, with active smokestacks spouting a steady detritus. The neighborhood looked almost like it was intended to be a secret, hidden away in the midst of the towers and the noise from the more cacophonous world beyond. The people on the streets were white and most of them, I imagined, spent the day in the nearby factories. I can still smell it, slightly sweet, and acrid, with the taste of sulfur never far off.
I parked my car, then walked two blocks to the school, a long low structure with a gym at one end and a small playground at the other. It was about ten in the morning, and I had at least two hours to kill until the kids came out after lunch so that I could try to pick out the twins. There was a small park, most of it covered with gravel, across the street from the school, and I sat on a bench for a few moments watching the school and the boxy houses and the towering factories and the sun over it all, concealed by a veil of haze even at mid-day.
On a low brick wall in front of the school, the words "Lake Calumet Christian Academy" were spelled out of white metal letters. Under the word "Academy", the faint outline of the word "Montessori" could be discerned. For a while, I stared at the bricks and the faded name of the former failure, and wondered what it was that had caused the demise of the Montessori school. In Kenilworth, the public schools were good enough for everyone, right through New Trier High. In fact, most of the kids who went to private schools left New Trier because it was too demanding. Thinking about it made me feel out of place as the sun rose higher behind the grey curtain of haze.
Worried that I was looking somewhat shiftless, I left the park and walked down a block towards a line of storefronts. From the park I could see their signs: bright colors on plastic sheeting, like most of the commercial strips I had flashed past on my way there. It occurred to me that the stores were much like the ones found in a small town in the South: a barbershop, a small grocery, a printer, a cafe, and a two-pump gas station. In the windows of the grocery and the cafe, there were flyers posted for a fair at the school the following week. I had always felt a certain affinity for such posters, which seemed naively hopeful, with their bright colors and not-quite right descriptions ("tasty deserts!").
I walked into the small cafe. There were eight or ten stools by the counter, four of which were filled, and six booths. I stopped for a minute at the door, wondering whether I should take a booth to myself. Wanting to fit in, I sat at the counter.
One of the other patrons, a man who looked happy but needed a shave (which, in fact, I did as well), nodded briefly at me as I sat down. I nodded in reply, and looked back down at the menu on the counter. Everyone seemed to be having coffee. There was one waitress who was doing all of the cooking and serving; as I sat there, she had her back to me. She looked to be about 35, at least from my angle, with strong features that hinted of Eastern Europe, like the man who had nodded at me. When I saw people like her, I always wanted to find out more—how she got here, what had happened in the place she came from, what she thought about God. I had learned long ago, though, to resist that impulse. Nonetheless, I still felt it, the urge to break down the wall dividing strangers.
Noticing me, the waitress turned from writing something and walked a few steps over. "What brings you down here?" she asked, her voice tinged with tired earnestness.
Embarrassed, I looked down, wondering what it was that gave me away as someone from outside, as a North Sider. I knew that she didn't know me, personally, which was part of the reason that it bothered me that she knew that small bit of my identity. Looking over her shoulder, I nodded and smiled and said "Just looking around I guess."
"Huh. We don't get a lot of that down here. Lake Calumet isn't much of a tourist spot, you know."
The man who had nodded leaned closer and said "Maybe you're looking for Lake Geneva. It's a real lake. It's up in Wisconsin." He and the waitress shared a short, grating laugh.
There was a long moment where they both looked at me, waiting for a reaction. I felt trapped. "Just... just coffee, I guess," I said quietly. She brought the coffee, left it before me with half of a smile, and turned back to her writing. The man turned back to his coffee, the hint of laughter still on his lips.
I left the coffee there for a while, just watching them, to make sure that they did not turn back towards me. After five minutes I took a sip of the coffee. It was terrible, and I don't like coffee to start with. There was something slightly gristly in there, and the grit got between my teeth after that first sip. Taking my leave, I left money on the counter and quickly dipped through the door and down the street.
I looked at my watch again; it was nearing eleven. Then I heard a sound which froze me in place, my spine tense and my fingers outstretched. It was an unmistakable sound, as singular as that of a bowling ball rolling down a lane and striking pins; the sound of children leaving school, pouring out of the doors with a shriek. The high-pitched screams, the banging of doors, the admonitions of teachers, and the pounding of feet blurred into an aural cacophony of joy and release. I broke into a run towards the school, which was half a block away, feeling the controlled panic of a businessman who has realized that the meeting is at 2:30 and not at 3:00.
As I approached the school, I ran past a line of cars next to the school, each occupied by a single woman. One stood by her car, watching the children and scanning the crowd. As I approached, I startled her slightly, and she looked up towards me. Meeting her eyes, I spoke: "what's happened? Why are they getting out now?"
By her reaction, I could tell that I was a bit too frenzied to appear rational. Her eyes widened slightly, and she turned her head, crossing her arms. "Half day today," she said apprehensively. I was running again as I heard the words, leaving her by the grey sedan.
A single child was leading a pack through the playground and towards the line of cars, a blond girl with a stain of red paint on her dress. A teacher called out for her to slow down. I passed her and stood on the lawn, surveying the mass of children surging out over the yard. The children wore blue and white uniforms, which made them seem maddeningly similar. There were blond heads everywhere, and I couldn't focus quickly enough to find the children of Janet Larson. My heart sank as I realized that the majority of the children had passed me. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
The man's hand seemed enormous on my shoulder, and its grip implied seriousness and strength. I turned and saw him, a large man with a somber look on his face. "Are you a parent here?" he asked, the low rumble of the South in his voice.
I looked at him blankly, then back over my shoulder at the children streaming past. "You don't look familiar," he said, his voice steady and even and terrifying. With a sharp downward motion, I wrenched my shoulder free from his grasp, running in the midst of the children towards the line of cars, the women looking out from the car windows at me.
Dodging between two of the cars, I turned slightly to see the principal close behind me, stopping at the line of cars. I ran across the street, a car skidding to avoid me, and down a side street. I looked behind me and saw the big man panting next to the cars.
At the end of the block, I took a right so as to get out of the view of the principal and the mothers and the children. This block was chock-full of small houses, each with a standing lamp in the middle of a small, immaculate lawn. I was nearly out of breath, and slowed to a walk, turning around once to make sure that I was not being followed. Seeing that I wasn't, I rested for a moment, my hands on my knees, my lungs sharply drawing in the sticky air. My chance had slipped away from me. The children had been there, no doubt; I just hadn't had time to find them. A cold feeling of disappointment began to creep through me.
Straightening up, I saw them.
Coming towards me, not more than ten yards away, were the twins. They were fighting; she had a stick and was poking him. It was as if they did not see me at all, as if I was invisible. They cut down a driveway and started across the street when I saw their destination; the station wagon, the tired-looking blond woman reading the novel in the driver's seat.
I started towards her, and as I approached the curb she looked up, not at me, but at the children. "I told you, don't cross the street in the middle of the block. People won't see you there..."
I had her. As I got closer to the car, I felt the warmth on my palms, the sense of urgency rising in my chest. My sweaty hand went into my pocket, and I pulled out the envelope as I ducked under the level of her window. When I got to the car, my left hand touched the cool metal of the car door while my right reached in through the window and dropped the envelope neatly on her lap.
For a second, I watched her reach down for the envelope, then turned and walked away. That was the first rule of process serving-- don't wait around to get in an argument, just drop off the goods.
I strode away quickly, bursting with pride and wealth and pleasure and revenge. I had never had this moment as a child playing baseball, hitting the home run and crossing home plate with my arms stretched overhead, my teammates shouting for me. Now that moment had come on a wave of effort and luck, and I resisted the impulse to put my hands over my head, making the fists of the victor. It was a moment of victory, of fledgling confidence, that I had waited a very long time for, and it was delicious.
But it was only a moment. As I got to the corner, I felt a tug at my sleeve. Looking down, I saw the little girl. Her face convulsed with fury and questioning, her eyes focused into intense slits, she looked up at me, screaming incoherently between sobs. Her rage and frustration boiled over through every part of her small self, and her tug became almost violent as she gathered up the material of my shirt in her balled fist.
For a moment, she was quiet, and stared up into my eyes. Just as suddenly, her anger overtook her again. She grabbed my sleeve, looked up at me and screamed, "who are you? Who are you?"
I didn't feel her fist, but I heard her words, and ripped my arm free from her grasp. It was only a few steps to my own car, and without looking back at her, I opened the door quickly and shut it behind me, putting the wall of glass and metal between me and her fury. Despite the sound of the engine, the wall of glass and steel, and the deadening grey haze that obscured the sun, I could not push her question away. Soon I was back on the freeway, turning up the radio to escape the sound of her voice. Who I was—that was a question I did not want to think about.